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Dispatch | Iran's Muted Rentrée


26 Sep 2012 23:37Comments
1391070112594826_PhotoL.jpg Three years later, Iran's universities continue to bear the brunt of the state's crackdown on dissent.

[ dispatch ] As the Tehran autumn begins, dusk descends by seven and the evenings take on a melancholy air. Though the cooler temperatures are a relieving change, the fall seems sadder than ever for many university students.

For the last couple of years, the government has declared September 15 the start of the new academic season, but students largely ignore that in favor of the traditional schedule in which the school year commences with the arrival of fall.

I get into a cab at the end of Karregar Street, cross Keshavarz and Fatemi Boulevards, and get out at Amir Abab Square. A few minutes' walk puts me at the entrance to the campus of the University of Tehran's social sciences department. A five-minute stroll from there brings me to the main building. Reaching the forecourt, I change my mind and instead of entering, I head for the school cafeteria. Several guys stand outside and smoke. I continue into the hall.

Elaheh, 22, is a sociology student in her final semester. The University of Tehran's social sciences department is the oldest in the country and regarded as the most important. She says that gaining acceptance into it appeared to be the fulfillment of her academic dreams.

Elaheh sips her tea and explains what she discovered. "Social sciences didn't have many worthy professors, and still doesn't," she says. As she sees it, most of the "good ones were fired after the last election in 2009."

Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, his Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology, whose portfolio includes the country's higher education system, has fired dozens of well-known professors or forced them into early retirement. During the political unrest that followed the 2009 election, many professors supported the Green Movement were imprisoned and then fired. Elaheh says that today there are only three or four worthwhile professors.

With an animated smile, she adds, "But the best aspect of the social sciences was that the students weren't really into social science. Practically all of us were in various social circles or research and study groups.

"Many got depressed after the 2009 election. There was no desire or energy for work, and no student activities or assemblies were permitted. The bustling social science department was in despair.

"Some days it feels like a deathly pall hangs over the school. We can't have any type of discussions in classrooms or public spaces. Political discussion is now relegated to the school cafeteria and the rear courtyard."

Seated next to Elaheh is her friend Rosa, who studies archeology. They've known each other since high school. Rosa says, "My university education has not come close to matching my expectations."

She says that the atmosphere in her department is similar to the one described by Elaheh. The continuing constriction of scientific societies and union activities has been disheartening. "The pulse of political activities," she adds, "which are an integral part of the university, practically stopped in the spring of 2010."

Stifling free expression

A wave of student support is widely held to have been responsible for carrying Mohammad Khatami to victory in the 1997 presidential race. In 2009, university students constituted much of the Green Movement's presence in the streets and a large proportion of those who were killed, injured, or incarcerated amid the protests that followed the state's announcement that Ahmadinejad had been reelected.

Over the past three years, the government has closed down Islamic student groups -- the most politically important university organizations for the past seven decades -- declared "public podiums" illegal, and banned all independent union activities in the schools. "They realize that students are the motivating engine of the Green Movement," Elaheh says.

Many university political and trade union activists have been arrested or deprived of education in the same period. According to the HRA human rights report, the 2010-11 academic year witnessed at least 52 student arrests, three cases of assembly disruption, two closures of assembly sites, two revocations of student publication permits, five cases of assault and battery, 27 judicial/security summons, 23 disciplinary committee warrants, 48 forceful separation of the sexes, 42 educational suspensions, 62 expulsions or permanent banishments, and 83 breaches of academic rights.

Science Minister Kamran Deneshjoo has pursued a policy of Islamization in the universities. In 2010, he proclaimed that campuses where students played "shameful" music and held parties, but failed to observe the commemorations for Shia martyrs, should be razed. More recently, he has pushed to limit women's participation in various fields of study.

Houman, an English student, is visiting the social sciences campus to help out with a friend's administrative issues. "There is no university life without the active participation of students and faculty in extracurricular activities unrelated to general studies and sciences," he says. The clampdown on such activities "is why the start of a new academic year doesn't augur a fresh awakening after the dormant summer."

Elaheh breaks in. "We used to look forward to student publications, but they have shut down everything. In June, near the end of the semester, Tomorrow's Dawn, a publication of the Organization of Islamic Students that had critiques of the university's day-to-day issues and of society at large, was shut down with lots of ballyhoo. Then it was The Commotion, published independently by some students, which was banned on campus by a group of students with the Basij" -- Iran's national militia, under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The University of Tehran has been the wellspring of many student movements since the Revolution. The famous 1999 uprising of Iranian students began in its dormitories of this university. The pressure put on students and faculty here since 2009 is thus perhaps not so surprising.

There are a few dozen large universities in Tehran with student bodies in the thousands. I head south toward Imam Hussein Circle and the humanities campus of the Free University of Tehran. The grounds around its three large buildings are not nearly so well kept as the University of Tehran's.

In one of the buildings, I head to the top floors, which are assigned to graduate students. Sanaz, 25, is working on her master's thesis. "The students have no drive," she says. "There are no more any meetings organized, nothing. The girls seem to be turning to marriage and looking for a husband."

"I come here just one day a week," she continues. "Then I go straight home and don't get in touch with anyone.... I was quite active in my undergraduate years, spending most of my time on campus. But now the new students don't do anything. Even the study groups are inactive."

Freud verboten

Since summer 2009, the government has focused intensely on humanities. Officials say they are concerned that over a quarter of all students in higher education are humanities majors. According to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "Many humanities courses lead students to lose their acceptance of divine teachings and Islam." The field of psychology, in particular, has consequently been targeted for Islamization over the past three years.

Via Skype, Mohammad Reza, who studies psychology at Bojnourd University in eastern Iran, says, "There are many areas in this field that have been completely altered with new sources, and little is discussed about Sigmund Freud, the founder of the field of psychology, or about psychoanalysis."

How has this affected him personally?

"The selection of practically uneducated people as directors of various fields of studies, solely on the basis of their connections, and similarly those on the science boards, makes a student feel that his educational rights are disrespected. He is left with no choice. He has to accept and follow the commands of department heads, which is often injurious and delays his graduation."

Mohammad Reza feels hopeless. "When a students faces all these hurdles, he is apt to lose his drive and become indifferent toward his studies. The only thing that he can imagine, if he can even afford it, is to leave the country to study somewhere else."

What is the situation like elsewhere, and in other fields of study? Sharoud is a small town about 240 miles east of Tehran. Despite its modest size, it has several universities and is full of students from cities such as Tehran and Mashhad.

Mohammad, 23, is studying engineering here, but he likes photography and film. Pointing to the sealed entrance to the school's film and photo center, he says, "This was our only hope, and they closed it down too.... I came here in 2008, but the center was shut down. A few friends and I refurbished the place and we screened many films. But that was beyond their tolerance."

I ask him if he holds much hope that university life will improve. "I am not optimistic given the current conditions," he says. "I have no interest in studying any more. I just hope to be over with this last semester soon."

I walk past a lovely park, called Boustan (land of perfumes), and reach the engineering school, a noisy four-story building.

Houshang, who studies electronics, has just been accepted to graduate school in Tehran and is here to pick up his degree. "As an undergrad, it took a while for me to get interested in studying," he says. "Perhaps it was because of the large number of common units, unrelated to my concentration, that I had to take."

Common courses are similar to core curricula at American colleges. Whether you are studying petroleum engineering or nursing or electronics, you still have to pass courses like "Islamic Thought," "Islamic Ethics," "Islamic Revolutions," "Analytical History of Shiism," and so forth. Out of 120 unit credits, 21 have to be "common."

Houshang continues, "As time passed, my interest in studying rose, but because of the teachers' inability to inspire curiosity and inquisitiveness, because of deficient lab facilities and the lack of future career guidance, I never developed a strong appetite for research."

I ask him about his reasons for continuing his education. "Truthfully, I am worried about the job situation," he says. "I am studying just to pass time and keep myself busy. I'd go crazy if I was unemployed."

According to official statistics, between one and one and a half million graduates enter the job market annually. Government data from 2009 shows that 45 percent of the unemployed hold at least a college degree. While officials have demonstrated little interest in updating such data, several independent studies show that employment uncertainty after graduation is dampening students' aspirations. The demoralizing impact appears to be evidenced by a noticeable drop in academic achievement.

"Abattoirs on any given day"

My last visit on this tour is to the pharmacology school of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad, Iran's second largest city.

As I enter, the grounds are racked by the din of drills and hammers. A new building is going up right in front of the main tower and every corner of the campus is under renovation.

I speak with Golareh, 24, at the entrance to one of the labs, asking her to tell me about the political and academic atmosphere at the school. "Although the academic situation is not so energized or active, it is still acceptable," she replies. "But the political milieu of the school has been dead since 2009. The board of the Fortification of Unity [an Islamic student group] was shut down and in its place are several Basiji boards. There are no publications and no activist student groups exist. If there are any political discussions, they are organized by the Basijis."

I strike up a conversation with Arash nearby. He ranked near the top among the tens of thousands who took the state university entrance exam, the concours, a few years back. "Last week I watched the announcement of this year's successful candidates on TV," he says. "Just before announcing the candidates, they placed a surprise call to the top student's home. If I was that person's parents, I wouldn't be so happy. Our scientific geniuses end up at the big universities in Tehran where they face serious dangers. That evening [three years ago] after the results were announced, the dorms at the University of Tehran were attacked and many of these brilliant minds who had gotten in with the highest ranks were killed or injured, arrested, expelled or banished from education for life. Now, should any new students' parents' celebrate that their children have achieved those high ranks in the tests?"

Arash is recalling the unprovoked attack on the student residence halls on the evening after the election results were announced in June 2009. Plainclothes security officers and policemen attacked with percussion grenades, tear gas, and automatic weapons. They killed five students and detained scores, many of whom were subsequently tortured while in prison.

Arash concludes, "Setting aside the once vigorous and ebullient atmosphere of the schools on the one hand and their Islamization on the other, the main question remains of how the universities can become human abattoirs on any given day."

Photo: Students returning to classes at Towhid High School.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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